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Freethought has a setback in Motto Case

March 18th, 2001

The 6th District Court ruled 9 to 4 that Ohio's motto is constitutional.

The majority found that the motto did not infringe on the 1st amendment of the Constitution as long as the State doesn't mention the verse in the Bible the text comes from. The court said that the motto wasn't different than the national motto "In God We Trust" nor was it unique to Christianity.

The court ignored the intent of the people who passed the law. It was passed to show favortism to the religious at the expense of the non-religious. And the fact that the text is a direct quote makes it plain to the casual observer that it is Christian in context.

With the logic the court used, Ohio could make a law that said Prayer works and the court wouldn't overule it.

Hopefully the ACLU will appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court.

To read the entire decision, click on the following link:

You can also read the juicy parts here:

Decision Nuts and Bolts

The following is the text of the story that appeared on the front page of the Columbus Dispatch on March 17th:

State motto ruled possible and constitutional

Saturday, March 17, 2001

Joe Hallett
Dispatch Politics Editor

With the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Ohio's state motto is possible.

Reversing an April 25 decision by three of its members, the full court yesterday ruled 9-4 that Ohio's 42-year-old state motto -- "With God, all things are possible" -- is constitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which challenged the motto on grounds that it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the state, said it is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That's a decision we'll look very carefully at, but we have not begun the steps to do that," said Raymond Vasvari, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio.

Barring action by the U.S. Supreme Court, the 6th Circuit's decision means that the state can continue to use the motto on official stationery, tax forms and reports. It also means the state won't have to dig up a $47,000 motto-emblazoned bronze plate in the sidewalk at the west entrance to the Statehouse.

Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery, whose office defended the State's use of the motto, led a chorus of praise by state elected officials for the 6th Circuit decision.

"The appeals court has now affirmed what was obvious to thousands who have written our office on this issue: The motto is a simple statement of faith and hope for many people of many faiths that does not violate our constitution," Montgomery said.

Gov. Bob Taft called the decision "a victory for the people of our state and the traditions that bind us together."

Sen. George V. Voinovich, who as governor in 1997 conceived the idea to have the motto inscribed on the Statehouse sidewalk after seeing a reference to God on a public building in India, hailed the decision, saying, "It really makes you believe that things are right with the world."

Ohio Senate President Richard H. Finan, chairman of the Capitol Square Review Board, the entity originally sued by the ACLU, said, "I hope that the decision today will put an end to the matter."

Under an appeal by Montgomery, the full court took up the case after three of its members voted 2-1 last April to reverse a 1998 decision upholding the constitutionality of the motto by Judge James L. Graham of the U.S. District Court in Columbus.

In a decision written by Judge David A. Nelson, the circuit court's nine-member majority agreed with Graham that Ohio's motto did not have the primary purpose of advancing religion.

"Just as the motto does not have as its primary purpose the advancement of religion, it does not have the primary effect of advancing religion, either," Nelson wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Eric Clay noted that because the U.S. Supreme Court had more than once refused to hear challenges to "In God We Trust," the national motto, he did not believe the 6th Circuit could "logically disapprove of the Ohio motto on establishment of religion grounds so long as the national motto passes constitutional muster."

The ACLU, which sued the state over the motto in 1997 on behalf of the Rev. Matthew Peterson of Fairmount Presbyterian Church of Cleveland Heights, argued that the motto had the effect of an endorsement of Christianity by the state.

Judge Gilbert Merritt, one of four dissenting judges, agreed with the ACLU, writing that Ohio has made it publicly known that the motto borrows a biblical phrase from Matthew 19:26 which recites the message of Jesus Christ.

"Judge Nelson's opinion for the court approves Ohio's adoption of Christ's words," Merritt wrote.

By finding the state motto constitutional, the ACLU's Vasvari contended, the circuit court sanctions an Ohio preference for Christianity in violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against the establishment of a religion by the state.

"The (court's) rationale is striking, because it takes a very, very narrow -- almost aggressively narrow -- view of what the establishment clause prohibits," he said. "What we need to remember is the state motto is not just a nice phrase that happens to have God in it, it is a direct quotation from the gospel of Matthew."

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